Turks and Caicos Islands

Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI) is not the place most people think about when they think about traveling to the Caribbean, but not because it isn’t the idyllic tropical island of most people’s dreams.  TCI are located just north of the island of Hispaniola and south of the Bahamas. These islands were really just only recently discovered by travelers and the infrastructure to develop tourism is just now gaining some momentum.  But if you’re looking for crystal clear blue water, and by that I mean the clearest and warmest blue water around, this is the place for you!

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Chalk Sound National Park

My visit to Turks and Caicos was to the most developed island in the group, Providenciales.  It is known locally as ‘Provo’ and is served by an international airport but not by cruise ships.  Not having a deep water port for the ships means less people and to me, this is a very good thing.  Provo has what has been voted as one of the best beaches in the world, Grace Bay Beach.  The beach is largely uninterrupted for around seven miles and has hotel properties and beach villas all along its shores.  I stayed on the eastern side of the island in an area called ‘Leeward’ and was happy being there due to the fact that is was away from the hotels and was much quieter than the main part of Grace Bay. Although Grace Bay is quite beautiful, to me it was a little overrated. Beautiful beaches and clear blue water can be found all over these islands and to me, these other beaches had a lot to offer, with a more natural vibe than Grace Bay. Here is a small sample of some of the other places we visited that might be a little lesser known, but were well worth exploring:

Chalk Sound National Park

If I had to pick what I thought was the most beautiful spot on Provo, I would surely pick Chalk Sound. The water here is the most outrageous turquoise blue I have ever seen anywhere in the world.  There isn’t much of a proper beach, that I could find, so we rented kayaks to explore the bay. Rent them at Las Brisas Restaurant (sounds weird to rent kayaks at a restaurant but it was just fine) and paddle into the blue.  It’s also a great apres kayak place to recharge.

Middle and North Caicos

Provo is a developed island with tourist infrastructure, five star dining, and decent roads.  The islands of North and Middle Caicos are absolutely none of that.  Tourism is virtually nonexistent, finding an actual restaurant was purely accidental (found a good one though in Mudjin Harbour), and the roads weren’t so good and poorly marked.  It was awesome!  Have you ever seen flamingos in their natural state? Ever been to a real live bat cave? Tropical beaches without people, any people?  Take a day trip from Provo and enjoy some time away from the crowds.

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Mudgin Harbor -Middle Caicos

Barrier Reef Snorkeling

From shore, there isn’t a tremendous amount of sea life to see, at least from what I experienced.  This is why a snorkeling trip out to the barrier reef is the more desirable option.  Big Blue Unlimited offers a package deal where you snorkel the reef, walk with the iguanas of Iguana Island, and visit the pristine and deserted beaches around Fort George Cay. The guides are top rate and the snorkeling was pretty good, although not as good as some other places I’ve been (like Hawaii). During the reef trip, we saw barracuda, parrotfish, and even squid.  Iguana Island was worth the stop but for me the highlight was the boat ride out to Fort George Cay.  Sitting on the bow of a fast moving boat over crystal clear blue water was something I could do every day of my life and never tire of it.  The boat seemed to fly over the water and couldn’t have been smoother.  To top it off, the boat stopped at a deserted beach where we ate fresh fruit and brownies while listening to the other guests discuss such wide ranging topics like Argentinian politics, life in the islands, and traveling to Cuba.

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Fort George Cay

Find Your Own Beach

I’d say the most relaxing beach we went to happened to be right by the place we rented. We could start and end our day by walking a couple of hundred yards to the water where we’d find only two or three people on the sand or in the water. We brought my wife’s stand up paddle board down with us and just splashed around, content to be relaxing at a beach we didn’t even know the name of.

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Lone Yellowtail at “our” beach

Know Before You Go

You don’t need more than maybe five or six days.  Any more than that and you may run out of things to do (which may be exactly what you’re looking for).

Be ready to fork out big bucks on food if you don’t stay at an all inclusive. These islands are among the most expensive in the whole of the Caribbean.

The islands felt mostly safe.  There were a couple of areas that felt a little uncomfortable at night even though nothing ever happened to us.  However, in the weeks after leaving the islands, two Americans had been shot in separate robberies. In hindsight, those ‘uncomfortable’ moments now seem a little unsettling.

The tourist bureau touts the Thursday Fish Fry as the big thing to do where locals and tourists mingle together to eat, drink, shop, and listen to island music.  There is really no mingling between the locals and the tourists unless you consider buying something ‘mingling’. The food was the same food you can get anywhere on the island, the music was average at best, and the atmosphere was a little bit like that of a flea market.

So would I go back…maybe!

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License plates with flamingos…check!

 

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Las Vegas, brain eating amoebas, and suicidal jackrabbits

The plane ride to Las Vegas was full of peppy 20 somethings on their way to a weekend of “fun” in Sin City taking selfies, pre drinking, dancing in their seats and playing card games as a preliminary bout to the main event (apologies for the boxing metaphor).  It’s really why most people go there and I get it.  Where else can you go to do things that are illegal in most states?  But that isn’t why we’re here…my wife and I are here to do mostly un-Vegas activities.

The first un-Vegas thing we did was staying outside of the city.  Our stay was in Kyle Canyon which was about 45 minutes from the airport where the brightest lights were from the moon, the stars, the headlights from the car, and maybe the glow from the Strip about 15 miles distant as the crow flies. The drive from the airport did seem a bit long but all of the suicidal jackrabbits on the highway forced you to pay attention. Unfortunately for one jackrabbit, the car’s bumper proved to be fatal. There were also wild donkeys on the road too but they were a little smarter than the rabbits and moved off of the road whenever the car got close. But staying so far away from the bright lights has certain advantages, the primary being just being able to relax where the pace of the place is slower compared to the craziness of Las Vegas.  When it’s hot enough to melt your shoes walking the Strip, the temperatures are quite a bit cooler in the canyon, about 20 degrees cooler (in the summertime, 20 degrees cooler can make the desert summer just a little more tolerable).

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Elvis has left the bathroom

The next morning, we headed to the Strip for a few hours of sightseeing.  The Strip is an all out attack on your senses.  First off, there are people everywhere, hoards of them.  Most people do walk here and it truly is the easiest and best way to get around (there are taxis too but walk if you can).  On your eyes, there is a constant barrage of signs, billboards, lights, and street performers vying for your attention as you stroll up and down the Strip.  There is no rest for the bloodshot eye in this town!  Your ears will get all of the sound it can handle as each hotel has music coming from outdoor speakers as you pass in front of their grounds.  This is all good until you transition from one casino to another and the sounds just overlap into one confusing din of Top 40 hits.

The best part of the strip has to be the hotels themselves.  The architecture is stunning.  It can be argued that the some of the hotels lack originality in wherever they draw their inspiration from but that makes them no less spectacular.  The hotels often are made to look like scenes from other famous places while still managing to be large, functioning places to gamble, entertain, and sleep.  You can go around the world without leaving the Nevada desert it seems.  New York, New York has done a magnificent job of replicating the Manhattan skyline.  Paris has a scaled version of the Eiffel Tower. The Venitian has canals with singing gondoliers that take you through a mini replica of Venice.  The list goes on: the Luxor is like a modern pyramid of Giza, Excalibur is like a giant English castle, Caesars Palace is Roman themed, and the Bellagio has a water theme.  There are just too many beautiful hotels to mention but try to see as many as you can.  You’ll get lots of steps in on your FitBit which will help work off some of those buffet meals you’ll consume during your stay.

That night we attended Cirque du Soleil’s “O” at the Bellagio and gambled while waiting  for the show to start, we played slots for about 20 minutes and won about $20 and then gave it right back to the casino, high rollers we are…not.  The show was a water themed production which fit well with the overall concept of the hotel.  The show itself has been in Vegas for many years and still draws very well.  If you’ve not been to a Cirque du Soleil show before, they are very well done and entertain you for the entire time, unless you don’t like clown humor, then it’s entertaining about 90% of the time.  The music is performed live, was equally as impressive and was perfect for the act it was supporting.  After the show, we caught one the “Fountains of Bellagio” shows as we walked back to our car.  These draw big crowds and was considerably cheaper than the Cirque show…free.  Next up was the drive back to our hotel and more jackrabbit dodgeball.

The next morning was an early one, 4:15 A.M. after only a couple of hours of sleep.  I know the couple of hours of sleep thing is par for the course in Vegas but for most people, their reasons are vastly different than ours.  We were getting up to go kayaking on the Colorado River.  We had booked a full day, unescorted trip and had to meet up with the outfitter, Desert Adventures in Boulder City at 6:00 A.M. sharp.  After going over the cursory safety details and pointers, we hopped into a van which would take us to the put in point just below the Hoover Dam where we would begin our damn tour (I couldn’t help the Vegas Vacation reference at least once). We would be on or near the river for about the next eight hours.

If there is no wind, the paddling is pretty easy as you are going downstream with the current for approximately 13 miles to where you get picked up by the tour company.  During the journey downstream, you get to take in the canyon scenery while gently floating along at a fairly leisurely pace.  Aside from just being in the kayak, there are also many opportunities to get out of your boat to do some hiking.  After about two miles, there is a popular slot canyon which is fed by a hot spring.  The water is warm as you walk along the canyon floor and it feels goooooooood! Trouble for me was navigating the rocks where the mini waterfalls were. It proved to be much harder than it looked.  I managed to fall off of the first fall (pun intended) and found each successive waterfall to be increasingly difficult. The falls were not too tough to get up but getting down, well that was a different story altogether.  I guess there is a shoe for everything and we had the wrong ones for walking through slot canyons.  When kayaking, Keen sandals are perfect since they can get wet but dry quickly. In a slot canyon they get rocks in them which is mostly just a slight nuisance but more importantly, they don’t grip the slippery rocks at each little waterfall.  There aren’t very many slot canyons where I live and I was not prepared for this part of the trip.  Next time I will be!

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Hoover Dam and the start of the kayak trip down the Colorado

Later on, there was a much easier to navigate slot canyon called Arizona Hot Springs and the Keens were perfect this time.  The short slot canyon was also spring fed (hence the name) and access to the pools was via an approximately 20′ ladder.  Sandbags are used to create the pools but everything else is purely natural.  Don’t get any water up your nose though, there’s s a brain eating amoeba in the water that could cause you some serious problems.  I hear that if a brain eating amoeba got into some people’s heads, they would starve to death 😂.  There were about four or five pools and each one got progressively hotter as you worked your way upstream.  I found the next to last one to be just right for me to sit in.

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Ominous signage

Back on the river, we still had about eight miles to go and about four hours to get there.  As easy as the paddling was so far, eight more miles would be a piece of cake.  Wrong! The wind had come up from downstream and made the paddling extremely difficult.  I had to stop several times from fatigue and I consider myself fairly healthy/fit.  Needless to say, we didn’t do much sightseeing the rest of the way as we battled the wind to make it to the rendezvous point by the 4:00 deadline.  There were times where the wind was blowing so hard that we weren’t even moving. Considering that we were paddling downstream, I found this extremely disheartening. We made it to the takeout beach with a few minutes to spare, only to learn that there were others who  were behind us.  For most of the paddle, I thought we were the last ones in the group still on the river but was so relieved to know that we weren’t.

Our last day was spent recovering from the past couple of days of “un-Vegas” activities.  I did a short hike in Kyle Canyon before we checked out of the hotel and then we began slowly working our way back to the airport.

What I’ve learned about traveling is that no matter where you go, there is something for everyone. Most people would probably look at our trip and say what a waste it was to go to Vegas and not do the Sin City itinerary.  Others avoid Vegas altogether. For us, we did the things a traveler would do rather than what a tourist would do.  Either way, there’s something in Las Vegas for everyone.

By the way, the plane ride home was full of quiet, exhausted people (us included) who I’m sure all have fun stories to tell but can’t because of the “code”.

Viva Las Vegas!

New Orleans: Wild

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The French Quarter

New Orleans is not usually the first place I think of going when I want to get away for a long weekend but the airfare was cheap and NOLA was a city that neither me nor my wife has ever to been to so why not? I am traditionally a pretty reserved person so the thought of cutting loose and getting hammered on Bourbon Street was probably not the experience I was going to have.  Our goals for this trip were pretty simple: eat some Cajun food, hear some jazz, have a beignet, get out of the city a bit, and if we have time…tour a cemetery.  Chances are that we wouldn’t get to everything but we’d at least give it a go!

After landing at Louis Armstrong International Airport, we made a beeline to our hotel just outside of the French Quarter to drop our bags off.  Once that was done, we checked the maps and followed the hoards of tourists into the French Quarter.  I normally don’t like to be in a group of “tourists ” but there are some notable exceptions to that.  How can anyone go to New Orleans without going into the French Quarter right? So we did and we quickly discovered that this place a vibe all to its own. The people were friendly, uninhibited, and quite honestly a little weird.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that, in fact it gave the area a unique quality all its own. The best way that I can think to describe it is like Paris meets Las Vegas meets Miami meets the circus.

We were hungry from the days travel and found some fast food on Bourbon Street (it was pretty good too).  While sitting in the open storefront, we could hear one of the neighborhood parades that are common in the city coming up towards us.  The sound was similar what a high school band would sound like if it were on steroids.  At the back end of the parade is where we got our first taste of the bead throwing tradition during Mardi Gras.  However, the is not the part of Mardi Gras where you had to “earn” your beads, you merely just had to catch ’em!

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Beads, just before impact!

After the sun went down, we hung around and waited for one of the Mardi Gras parades to begin. We waited for quite awhile during what was actually a pretty chilly night.  While we were waiting we watched from a distance as a heavily enebriated woman fell and hit her head on Canal Street.  Medics on bikes were on the scene quickly to help as she waved to everyone who passed by, oblivious to the scene she created.  The parade eventually made its way past us and was mostly comprised of local high school bands, youth dance academies, and some floats representing various organizations. After the parade ended, it was back to the hotel for some sleep before heading out of the city the next day to have a wild day in a much different way.

The following morning was sunny but cool for our kayaking trip into the swamp. We signed up with Wild Louisiana Tours (www.wildlouisianatours.com) for two hours of paddling through the Bayou, an environment I knew almost nothing about.  The trip took us through a maze of waterways as our guide pointed out local flora, fauna, and history. One notably absent member of the fauna community was the American Alligator as it was a bit too chilly for them during this time of the year (late winter).  I wanted to see gators but then again maybe I didn’t !  Our primary complaint about the tour is that we wished it would have lasted longer since we enjoyed it so much.

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Kayaking Manshac Swamp

After the kayaking was finished, we decided to drive to a plantation since we were already about half way there from New Orleans.  My wife Kimberly has always talked about visiting a plantation and we time to visit only one of them.  I had done a little research before we left and it seemed that the Oak Alley Plantation would be the best fit for us and our time crunch.  Oak Alley was a sugar plantation back in the day and the house is very well preserved and uses guides dressed in period costumes to make the visit feel that much more authentic.  But make no mistake, this plantation is most famous for its Live Oak lined pathway in the front part of the property.  The trees have grown quite large and create a tunnel-like feel as you walk underneath them.

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Live Oak, Oak Alley Plantation, Louisiana
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Oak Alley Plantation

Unfortunately, we mistimed our arrival back in New Orleans and had to navigate the streets during another Mardi Gras parade.  This turned into a huge problem, or adventure, depending on your perspective. Since I am typically a very impatient person, this was a problem. For my wife, it was an opportunity to view some other parts of the city.  To kill some time, we decided to stop by the NOLA Brewing Company for a couple of beers and some food while we waited out the parade.  The app on my phone said it was 10 minutes away so we decided to go.  The problem was that every street we tried to turn on was blocked off by the parade.  So we basically tried getting to the left at every intersection, only to be thwarted every time.  Eventually, we found one street that we could turn onto, only to immediately come upon another roadblock.  Eventually, a police offer gave us some great advice to go through a parking lot and wait there until the parade ended, which it did soon after we got there.  It ended up taking two hours to get to the brewery and we were able to wait out the rest of the parade from there.

The next day was checkout day and we asked for a late checkout so that we could get in one more thing before the next round of parades started up.  Kimberly has always wanted to see an above ground cemetery and closest one we could find within walking distance was the St. Louis Cemetery Number One.  It was on the outskirts of the French Quarter and was in an area that looked a little bit run down, so use caution when walking around there. As it turned out, buried in this cemetery was the Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau, who I actually knew nothing about but I do now.  Perhaps just as interesting though is that actor Nicolas Cage has purchased a plot here.  The plot has a pyramid on it already (very National Treasure-ish) and I must admit that it looks grossly out of place in the cemetery that dates back to the late 1700’s.

So then it was back to the hotel to get the car and then try to get out of the city before all of the roads get blocked. We decided to get out of the city altogether while killing time to catch our flight home. We ended up driving from New Orleans out towards Bay Saint Louis Mississippi only to be stopped again by another parade on the outskirts of the town. This forced us to head toward the gulf and through the small town of Waveland.  From there we found a long pier and walked out to the end of it where we at least got some fresh air and exercise before heading back to the airport.  We managed to avoid the city by taking the causeway across Lake Pontchartrain and made it there with just a little time to spare.

We did not get to see and do everything we wanted to but we did try beignets at Cafe Beignet, as Parisian a cafe as you could imagine and the beignets were delicious.  So we missed out on the jazz clubs and Cajun food but we’ll cross that off the list next time.  That’s right, we’ll be back, just not during Mardi Gras.